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Senator wants crackdown on Afghanistan projects

By Charley Keyes, CNN Senior National Security Producer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill chaired a hearing of a Senate subcommittee
  • She focused on American taxpayer dollars going to projects in Afghanistan
  • "Perhaps it's time to shut down $17 billion ... when our track record really stinks"

Washington (CNN) -- A U.S. senator is suggesting a halt to billions of American taxpayer dollars going to projects in Afghanistan unless there is a complete overhaul of how and why the money is spent.

"Perhaps it's time to shut down $17 billion worth of money going for reconstruction projects, when our track record really stinks," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said.

And McCaskill, chairing a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, said it often was impossible to find any U.S. official or private company to explain how projects often busted budgets or exceeded what local authorities could finance or manage in the future.

"It is time that somebody is responsible for money that is spent on roads, that will not ever be sustained, and for buildings and electrical power facilities that are built that no one there even knows how to use," she said.

McCaskill has been a frequent and vocal critic of spending on civilian projects in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has questioned how much American taxpayers have paid private contractors in both war zones. She said that projects in Afghanistan deserved the same scrutiny as a highway in the United States, what she called "some strong, substantive answers that every dime that is being spent in Afghanistan on reconstruction is being spent wisely."

One project discussed in the hearing was a 64-mile stretch of highway built by an American company in southeastern Afghanistan, connecting the towns of Gardez and Khost,over mountainous terrain near the Pakistan border. The orginal cost was $69 million but that has ballooned to $176 million, with much of the increase for additional security.

McCaskill said President Barack Obama had asked for $17 billion for reconstruction contracts in Afghanistan next year and that over the past 10 years more than $61 billion had been spent.

"That's a big number if the United States of America was humming along," McCaskill said. "That's a big number if our roads weren't crumbling because we don't have the money to fix them. That's a big number if we are not looking at cutting many programs that are essential to the health and welfare of this nation."

The ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said there were now 154,000 contractors in Afghanistan working for the Defense and State Departments and the Agency for International Development.

"The issue of effective and efficient use of those contractors assumes a new urgency as we near both the surge drawdown ... and also the planned 2014 transition to Afghanistan-led security," Portman said. "It's also, of course, a timely discussion given our fiscal problems and the fiscal crisis at our doorstep."

 
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